'PR tends to reward extroverts and belittle introverts': 30 Under 30 alumni on sector challenges

Alumni of the past five years' 30 Under 30 lists tell us what the next generation of PR leaders thinks about big issues affecting the industry.

Photo by Juan Jose on Unsplash
Photo by Juan Jose on Unsplash

You may be thinking: it’s another one of those ‘What do Millennials want?’ articles that have littered publications since the generation born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s started shaping culture.

But this is not a run-of-the-mill survey. PRWeek asked those included in our 30 Under 30 scheme from 2015 to 2019 about crucial issues affecting the PR sector, providing the most accurate picture yet of what the cream of this generation’s comms professionals think.

The survey comes at a generational crossroads. This is probably the last year in which no one from Gen Z – those born between about 1996 and 2010 – will appear in 30 Under 30.

As you can see from their job titles, many of the respondents, all aged between 24 and 34, have reached very senior positions. They are no longer the new kids on the block, but the new leaders – directly changing the way the industry operates and gears up for the future.

PRWeek will be rounding up their views on various other topics in the coming days, but we summarise some of their main thoughts below.

Click here to read about the 30 Under 30 group for 2019.

Careers

Given the high-flying nature of the sample base, it’s no surprise that most respondents believe PR offers good opportunities for career progression. Twenty strongly agreed with that statement, 24 agreed and two were neutral – nobody disagreed.

Maria Arbalova (below), associate director at AxiCom, gives a typical response: "In an agency environment, employees move between so many titles in a short space of time that there is a constant sense of achievement. There are also plenty of senior options, both at agencies and in-house, so ambitious individuals can always plan their next step forward."

Liz Mercer, account director at Publicis Resolute, agrees. In her experience of agency life, "promotions are based on merit, are rarely restricted to specific time frames and are not predicated on someone more senior leaving so that a role becomes available".

But for Georgie Howlett, associate director at Kin&Co, "progression can depend on the agency… and how much [it is] able to let you grow sideways as well as upwards".

Victoria Daughtrey, analytics account director at Weber Shandwick, says PR "tends to reward extroverts and belittle introverts, which is something we need to proactively change".

Meanwhile, Asad Dhunna, the founder of The Unmistakables agency and comms director at Pride in London, says opportunities vary depending which side of the fence you’re on.

"Agency life offers lots of progression by dint of having so many layers (particularly within large agencies). Client-side is a little slower, and it’s rare to see chief comms officers transitioning to CEO roles."

Gemma Cook, PR manager for Alexa and Echo at Amazon, says career progression is "harder" in-house, where the opportunity to progress "lies in having to constantly adapt to the role that PR plays within the business".

Working practices

Opinions were far more divided over the question of whether PR employers operate enlightened working practices. While 22 agreed that they do (including four who strongly agreed), 17 were neutral on the question and four disagreed.

Some respondents were clearly impressed by how the industry has risen to the challenges.

"I believe the majority of PR employers are looking at new and innovative ways to improve working practices, whether fostering a culture of remote working, providing opportunities for training, reviewing their team structures to ensure efficiencies and more," said Robyn Bemment, head of comms, EMEA & APAC, at GPS navigation software app Waze.

But Alexandra Neale (below), account director at Antidote Communications, says there’s a "real disparity" between agencies on this score. "Some are more progressive, advocating flexible working and digital tools (such as Slack), whereas others still believe working your nine-to-six at your desk is the answer to quality client service."

Ottilie Ratcliffe, associate creative at The Romans, also notes a lack of consistency.

"The need to recognise mental-health wellness in a lot of the top agencies is really encouraging, and most companies offer flexible working. The one thing I’d like to see more of is better work-life balance across the board – there are still some agencies that promote working late with no monetary incentive, and working weekends with no time in lieu."

But flexible working doesn’t necessarily resolve all workplace challenges. "We can work anywhere and at any time, but the drawbacks are the inability to switch off and the expectation that comes with it," says James Hennigan, head of campaigns at Galibier PR.

Mental health

On a similar topic, respondents were asked about support offered for mental wellbeing, and they clearly see room for improvement.

While 17 agreed (two of them strongly) that PR employers offer effect mental-health support, 11 disagreed (one strongly) and 18 were neutral.

"This has improved markedly but there is still a way to go," says Ryan Sketchley, editorial director at Frank PR. "I think we are more prone that other sectors to fall into ‘always-on’ culture."

Several respondents praised particular initiatives undertaken by their own employers. Others urged them to look beyond a cookie-cutter approach to mental health.

According to freelance PR consultant Rupert Esdaile: "PR employers are offering some great support for mental-health wellbeing in the workplace, but companies need to start asking employees what they would like to see instead of promoting activities they believe will help them. While offering benefits such as yoga and meditation is great, ultimately, we need to stop treating mental-health treatment as a one-size-fits-all approach."

Others take a stronger line. David Clare, partner and head of content at Tyto PR, says: "From my experience, PR employers can cause mental wellbeing to suffer more than they help. There are exceptions, as we try to be, but the industry certainly has a problem on its hands."

And Lauren Westmore (below), associate director at Third City, who ticked the ‘strongly disagree’ box for this question, is cynical of the sector’s steps to improve mental-health support.

"The industry has done a good ‘self-PR job’, but lots of these initiatives still don’t ring true for me," she says. "I believe that generational differences lie at the root of problem. Senior staff know they should be aware of and sensitive to mental-health issues, but often still question how common, severe or real these are. This needs to change if employers want to truly support their staff."

Diversity

Respondents were also asked whether they believe PR is making good strides toward being more diverse. Many think it is – 23 of them agreed with that statement, four strongly, but eight disagreed (two strongly) and 16 were neutral.

"PR has always been an inclusive industry and I expect to see this trend continue," says Bemment.

Others take the opposite view. "I strongly dis-agree that the industry is becoming more diverse," says Dhunna (below). "There is a lot of lip service at all levels and too many token gestures. I strongly agree insofar as I am running a consultancy that seeks to be the change."

Daughtrey says: "We talk the talk, but we are not doing enough to combat the trend. Our industry is incredibly homogenous, and the problem stems from the beginnings of education, as well as our job descriptions."

Mischief associate director Holly Smith argues that the industry "has been slow to embrace true diversity". She adds: "Apprenticeships are one thing, but we really need to unlock talent pools beyond the London bubble and beyond the traditional paths for recruitment."

Again, for many the picture varies widely, depending on the employer. "My current company is [making good strides], but I cannot speak for the industry, which I know still has a long way to go," says Euan Steedman, international press officer at CNN.

PR versus the rest

There was also no clear consensus on the question of whether PR is now more effective than its sister marcomms disciplines. More respondents were favourable towards the premise than were not – 24 agreed, including five strongly, and nine disagreed. However, 18 gave a neutral response.

Laura Rudolph, associate director at Kazoo Communications, is optimistic. "PR offers fantastic value and instantly tangible results, in a way other disciplines cannot," she says. "As an industry, we can react to what is happening in the world and make our clients/brands relevant in an instant – something that six months of advertising planning can never achieve."

"Public mistrust of paid-for opportunities and owned content is at an all-time high," adds Peter Rogers (below), associate director at Weber Shandwick. "More than ever, earned and editorial endorsement that PR consultants can help unlock are essential for brands that want to win confidence and make genuine gains in their reputation."

Smith has a similar stance, pointing to crucial strides taken around measurement that "really show our worth in driving business impact". She adds: "As such, we’re earning greater respect from our fellow marcomms agencies and earning the attention of the C-suite."

Several respondents highlighted the crucial impact of integration across marcomms and the blurred lines between disciplines.

Jasmine Barnes, associate director at BCW, says: "I don’t think one is better than the other – from my experience the best results are achieved when all disciplines work together."

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